The deadly Israel-Hamas war raging in the Middle East is bringing increasing volume, urgency, and bitterness to the Israeli-Palestinian debate within Canada and internationally.
One flashpoint for public anger is the nature of Hamas, the organization that launched surprise attacks on Israeli communities on Oct. 7, which brought a fierce response from Israel.
The brutality and carnage of the attacks adds sharp animosity to an already rancorous debate. What might it mean to support Hamas when voicing support of a Palestinian position? Why is supporting Hamas so offensive to many? Is it illegal to support Hamas?
Here is an exploration of a group now constantly in the headlines.
The name Hamas is an acronym of its formal Arabic name of Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, which translates as Islamic Resistance Movement. This is why Hamas is sometimes written in all capital letters.
Hamas was formed in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising, called an intifada. It was a spin-off of the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. In its original charter, Hamas traces the lineage of its philosophy to Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, an Arab nationalist and militant of the 1920s and 30s.
The goal of Hamas is replacing the Jewish state of Israel with an Islamic Palestinian state by any means, including violence.
According to its 1988 founding charter, Hamas “strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” It says: “Resisting and quelling the enemy become the individual duty of every Muslim, male or female”; “Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.”
The charter rejects “so-called peaceful” solutions: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time.”
A 2017 Hamas manifesto outlines a modern vision: “Its goal is to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project,” it says.
“Palestine symbolizes the resistance that shall continue until liberation is accomplished, until the return is fulfilled and until a fully sovereign state is established with Jerusalem as its capital.
“Not one stone of Jerusalem can be surrendered or relinquished. The measures undertaken by the occupiers in Jerusalem, such as Judaization, settlement building, and establishing facts on the ground are fundamentally null and void.”
Hamas says Palestine “extends from the River Jordan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west and from Ras Al-Naqurah in the north to Umm Al-Rashrash in the south.” That is the basis for the pro-Palestinian slogan “from the river to the sea,” a notion that erases the presence of Israel.
“The establishment of ‘Israel’ is entirely illegal and contravenes the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people,” the 2017 statement says.
The recent manifesto retains Hamas’s violence as a ready option: “Resistance and jihad for the liberation of Palestine will remain a legitimate right, a duty and an honour,” it says.
“Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right…. At the heart of these lies armed resistance, which is regarded as the strategic choice for protecting the principles and the rights of the Palestinian people.”
Hamas pursues both violence and politics in aid of its goal.
Hamas has been declared a terrorist organization by several countries and international organizations over the years.
In Canada in 2002, Hamas was added to the government list of named terrorist entities under the Anti-terrorism Act.
Canada’s designation says Hamas is responsible for terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets since 1990, and is one of the primary groups involved in suicide bombings aimed at Israelis since the start of the intifada in September 2000.
It is not a crime to be listed, but a listed entity can have its property seized and its banking activity frozen and scrutinized.
“The listing of an entity is a public means of identifying a group or individual as being associated with terrorism,” said Public Safety Canada, the government department responsible for matters of safety and national security.
It can be a crime to knowingly participate or contribute to the activity of a terrorist group.
Does that mean waving a Hamas flag at a rally is a crime? Can someone be charged for expressing support for Hamas in Canada? Not likely, although there is a line the government draws.
“This participation is only an offence if its purpose is to enhance the ability of any terrorist group to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity,” Public Safety Canada said. The threshold for a prosecution is high.
In the United States, Hamas was declared a specially designated terrorist organization in 1996, which clamped down on its financial transactions, and then formally designated a foreign terrorist organization by the Secretary of State in 1997.
Following Hamas’s claim of responsibility for a 2003 suicide bombing in Jerusalem which killed 20 people, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated six Hamas leaders and five Hamas-related charities as “specially designated global terrorists,” making it a crime under U.S. law to conduct any transactions with them. This included its founder, Yassin.
U.S. officials said they “have the blood of innocents on their hands.” Hamas “engaged in grave acts of violence that disrupt the Middle East peace process and constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
In May, the U.S. placed sanctions on a Hamas finance official, three Hamas financial facilitators, and six companies for funding Hamas, saying they held $500 million in assets.
Since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, the U.S. imposed sanctions against additional Hamas officials and organizations, including ten Hamas members, operatives, and financial facilitators in Gaza, Sudan, Turkey, Algeria, and Qatar. Another round of sanctions included a Hamas official in Iran and members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, cited for Hamas training.
The European Union designated Hamas’s military wing a terrorist organization in 2001 and the entirety of Hamas in 2003. Hamas challenged the designation in court, arguing it formed a government and is able to conduct military operations. It lost the case in 2017.
Britain first sanctioned the military wing of Hamas in 2001 but extended it to encompass the “so-called political” wing in 2021, saying “distinguishing between the various parts of Hamas is artificial. Hamas is a complex but single terrorist organization.”
Hamas was declared an illegal organization by Israel in 1989.
Other countries have also named Hamas, or its military wing, as a terrorist group. The United Nations has not.
Complicating and sometimes obscuring the activities of Hamas is the organization’s political role in the civil administration of Gaza, a narrow strip of land that hugs the Mediterranean Sea.
Hamas has been one of two main political parties in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, which borders Jordan and the Dead Sea. In 2006, Hamas won a controlling proportion of seats in the legislature created by the Oslo Accords, an international effort to resolve the conflict.
Hamas took internal control of the Gaza Strip the following year by ousting Fatah party rivals in a short civil war. No further elections have been held.
Hamas’s political activity includes social and religious roles. Gaza has remained its primary base of activity while the Fatah party retains control in the West Bank.
The U.S. State Department estimated active Hamas fighters at about 20,000; Israel estimated 30,000; and Hamas claimed more than 40,000.
Hamas has engaged in numerous attacks against Israel and Israelis, including suicide bombings, tens of thousands of rocket barrages, and kidnappings of civilians and soldiers.
Hamas uses improvised explosive devices, short- and long-range rockets and mortars, small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, man-portable air defence systems, antitank missiles, and unmanned aircraft systems, according to the U.S. State Department. The group also uses espionage, cyber-attacks and computer network exploitation.
Hamas has launched many deadly attacks on civilian and military targets over decades, including tens of thousands of rockets fired into Israel, but on Oct. 7, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel.
The assault drew harsh condemnation because of its breadth and brutality, particularly for targeting civilians.
In response, Israel declared war on Hamas and began devastating strikes into densely populated Gaza.
The conflict continues with escalating damage and deaths.
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